Teaching “the 13th documentary”

The United States is home to 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of the world’s prisoners. Think about that. —Former President Barack Obama Our justice system is a human rights catastrophe and one of the biggest moral crises of our time. —Van Jones Ava DuVernay’s Netflix film ’13th’ reveals how mass incarceration is an extension of slavery.

There is something bracing, even exciting, about the intellectual rigour that Ava DuVernay brings to this documentary about the prison system and the economic forces behind racism in America. The film takes its title from the 13th amendment, which outlawed slavery but left a significant loophole. This clause, which allowed that involuntary servitude could be used as a punishment for crime, was exploited immediately in the aftermath of the civil war and, DuVernay argues, continues to be abused to this day. Source: The Guardian

Lesson plan

Read the whole article above and then watch the documentary, you find it on Netflix.

Discussion in class

  1. History is not just stuff that happens by accident. We are the products of history that our ancestors choose if we’re white. If we are black, we are the products of the history that our ancestors most likely did not choose. Yet here we are all together, the products of that set of choices. And we have to understand that in order to escape from it. — Kevin Gannon, 13th What are your thoughts on this quote? Do you agree or disagree? Why or why not?
  2. Read the interview with the producer Ava DuVernay here.
  3. President Lyndon B. Johnson ushered in the War on Crime, Nixon began a figurative War on Drugs that became a literal War on Drugs in the Reagan era. Were you surprised to learn about the racial underpinnings of these legislative policies and the active role of the state in criminalizing and targeting communities of color? Discuss using the quotation below.  The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did. – John Ehrlichman, Nixon Administration Advisor
  4. Crack vs Cocaine. Same drug (one powdered, one cooked) but used in different racial communities and carry different sentencing. Share your thoughts on how this contributed to mass incarceration.
  5. Super predator. Criminal. Think about the power of media and the power of words. Discuss media and how words impact the perception and criminalization of people of color, both in the past and the present (animalistic, violent, to be feared, threat to white people, criminals, etc.). Give modern-day examples.
  6. According to the documentary, President Clinton built the infrastructure for mass incarceration: mandatory minimums (taking the discretion away from judges), militarization of police (SWAT teams), three-strikes law, and truth-in-sentencing laws (must serve 85% of sentence). Discuss the role of politics and crime and how you see it impact our communities today (both past and current administrations).
  7. PRISONERS FOR PROFIT. Were you aware of the Prison Industrial Complex and how corporations are profiting from incarceration? • Were you surprised to know about ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council—a committee of politicians and corporations influencing laws that benefit its corporate founders and pushing forth policies to increase the number of people in prison and increase sentences)? • Talk about CCA (Corrections Corporations of America, the leader in private prisons that is required to keep prison beds filled—the leading corporation responsible for the rapid increase in criminalization) and how that impacts our communities.
  8. The film argues that there is a direct link between American slavery and the modern American prison system. What is your take on this argument? Source: Discussion guide.

My takeaways:

List three ways this documentary has impacted you. Write the answers on your blog.

  1. What did you learn?
  2. What insights did it provide?
  3. What questions do you still have?



  1. Please cite your sources. It’s important to refrain from participating in the theft of ideas, especially the theft of Black people’s intellectual labor. It’s very easy to cite where you borrowed this “lesson plan”.

  2. Thank you so much for this lesson plan 🙂 Will use it in my English class here in Norway, teaching about Citizenship and Society, with focus on USA.

  3. I hate you for making this, now my teacher is using this instead of the normal lesson plans we use that actually help us learn, all this is doing is making us hate the class

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